Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets is available is available in an English translation. The transition of wealthy economies from a market economy (“Capitalism”) to a welfare state (“Socialism”) has apparently pretty painless for most citizens. Nearly half of the U.S. economy is now centrally-planned or taxpayer-funded and people pay their property tax, sales tax, gasoline tax, payroll tax, Medicare tax, income tax, etc. without complaining too much.
Alexievich interviewed people in former Soviet republics, including Russia, to find out what it was like to go in the other direction: from Socialism to a free-market Capitalism that demands much more of citizens than the U.S. or Western Europe.
Everything below is a quote from someone she interviewed:
Today, people just want to live their lives, they don’t need some great Idea. This is entirely new for Russia; it’s unprecedented in Russian literature. At heart, we’re built for war. We were always either fighting or preparing to fight. We’ve never known anything else—hence our wartime psychology. Even in civilian life, everything was always militarized. The drums were beating, the banners flying, our hearts leaping out of our chests. People didn’t recognize their own slavery—they even liked being slaves. I remember it well: After we finished school, we’d volunteer to go on class trips to the Virgin Lands, and we’d look down on the students who didn’t want to come.
So here it is, freedom! Is it everything we hoped it would be? We were prepared to die for our ideals. To prove ourselves in battle. Instead, we ushered in a Chekhovian life. Without any history. Without any values except for the value of human life—life in general. Now we have new dreams: building a house, buying a decent car, planting gooseberries… Freedom turned out to mean the rehabilitation of bourgeois existence, which has traditionally been suppressed in Russia. The freedom of Her Highness Consumption.
My wife and I graduated from the Philosophy Faculty of St. Petersburg (back then, it was Leningrad) State University, then she got a job as a janitor, and I was a stoker in a boiler plant. You’d work one twenty-four-hour shift and then get two days off. Back then, an engineer made 130 rubles a month, while in the boiler room, I was getting 90, which is to say that if you were willing to give up 40 rubles a month, you could buy yourself absolute freedom. We read, we went through tons of books. We talked. We thought that we were coming up with new ideas.
There were new rules: If you have money, you count—no money, you’re nothing. Who cares if you’ve read all of Hegel? “Humanities” started sounding like a disease.
There was so much love! What women! Those women hated the rich. You couldn’t buy them. Today, no one has time for feelings, they’re all out making money. The discovery of money hit us like an atom bomb…
Before, I had hated money, I didn’t know what it was. My family never talked about it—it was considered shameful. We grew up in a country where money essentially did not exist. Like everyone else, I would get my 120 rubles a month and that had been enough. … Back then, books replaced life… This was the end of our nightly kitchen vigils and the beginning of making money then making more money on the side. Money became synonymous with freedom. Everyone was completely preoccupied with it. The strongest and most aggressive started doing business. We forgot all about Lenin and Stalin. And that’s what saved us from another civil war with Reds on the one side and Whites on the other. Friends and foes. Instead of blood, there was all this new stuff… Life! We chose the beautiful life. No one wanted to die beautifully anymore, everyone wanted to live beautifully instead. The only problem was that there wasn’t really enough to go around…
The Soviet was a very good person, capable of traveling beyond the Urals, into the furthest deserts, all for the sake of ideals, not dollars. We weren’t after somebody else’s green bills. The Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, the Siege of Stalingrad, the first man in space—that was all us. The mighty sovok! I still take pleasure in writing “USSR.” That was my country; the country I live in today is not. I feel like I’m living on foreign soil.
Socialism isn’t just labor camps, informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright, just world: Everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others. They say to me that you couldn’t buy a car—so then no one had a car. No one wore Versace suits or bought houses in Miami. My God! The leaders of the USSR lived like mid-level businessmen, they were nothing like today’s oligarchs. Not one bit! They weren’t building themselves yachts with champagne showers. Can you imagine! Right now, there’s a commercial on TV for copper bathtubs that cost as much as a two-bedroom apartment. Could you explain to me exactly who they’re for? Gilded doorknobs… Is this freedom? The little man, the nobody, is a zero—you’ll find him at the very bottom of the barrel.
A cult of money and success. The strong, with their iron biceps, are the ones who survive. But not everyone is capable of stopping at nothing to tear a piece of the pie out of somebody else’s mouth. For some, it’s simply not in their nature. Others even find it disgusting.
Did I believe in communism? I’ll be honest with you, I’m not going to lie: I believed in the possibility of life being governed fairly. And today… as I’ve already told you… I still believe in that. I’m sick of hearing about how bad life was under socialism. I’m proud of the Soviet era! It wasn’t “the good life,” but it was regular life. We had love and friendship… dresses and shoes… People hungrily listened to writers and actors, which they don’t do anymore.
Everywhere you look, you see our new heroes: bankers and businessmen, models and prostitutes… managers… The young can adapt, while the old die in silence behind closed doors. They die in poverty, all but forgotten. My pension is fifty dollars a month…[ She laughs.] I’ve read that Gorbachev’s is also fifty dollars a month… They say that the Communists “lived in mansions and ate black caviar by the spoonful. They built communism for themselves.” My God! I’ve shown you around my “mansion”—a regular two-bedroom apartment, fifty-seven square meters. I haven’t hidden anything from you: my Soviet crystal, my Soviet gold…
The first thing to go was friendship… Suddenly, everyone was too busy, they had to go out and make money. Before, it had seemed like we didn’t need money at all… that it had no bearing on us. Suddenly, everyone saw the beauty of green bills—these were no Soviet rubles, they weren’t just play money. Bookish boys and girls, us house plants… We turned out to be ill suited for the new world we’d been waiting for. We were expecting something else, not this. We’d read a boatload of romantic books, but life kicked and shoved us in another direction.
More: read Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets